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Vic's View

Vic's View: Gagging Crazy

Needed: a judge who really knows how to gag a trial - for the defendant's own good


Why is South Carolina buying chemicals, in secret, to conduct executions?

Kill 9 people of color in their own church in Charleston - no death penalty.

Kill 2 law enforcement officers serving a warrant on your son in Florence - no death penalty.

If we’re not going to use it for heinous crimes, let’s get rid of it. However, this is not a column related to the death penalty - this is a column related to justice in secret.

Eighth Circuit Judge Eugene Griffith imposed a gag order so tight on the trial of Frederick Hopkins, charged with the shooting death of two Florence lawmen, that no one dared to even whisper to the news media that a guilty plea was going to be accepted more than 100 miles from where the murders took place. Thankfully, it looks like Hopkins is going to sentenced where the crimes took place (he got life). The gag order was necessary, apparently, because Hopkins couldn’t be trusted not to act like a crazy man in court. He wrote letters to newspapers explaining how he went into “Saigon mode” when he saw armed lawmen (“soldiers”) outside his house. He had no choice but to kill them as he stood his ground (October, 2018).

And finally he changed his plea from not guilty to guilty in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table, at a hearing no news media was informed of (excellent reporting on this is done by the Charleston Post & Courier and Fits News). 

Randall Savely, co-executive director of the S.C. Press Association, said the change of plea may have saved the parties from a time-consuming and costly trial, “but it was done at the expense of giving the public information about the plea hearing ahead of time. The public is much better served when notice is given in advance — especially about a hearing related to a case of such high public concern.”

I know Judge Griffith from Newberry County and I have covered cases in his court in Laurens - in this case, I presume, he was in a tough spot, the gag order (in other words, private justice) was needed to protect the defendant from himself.

His public outbursts when the news media was present was making it almost impossible for him to get a fair trial - something on which he could have won on appeal. So, really, we’ll never know from independent sources what went on in that courtroom.

All because the defendant could not keep quiet.

So, for that reason, I am nominating Judge Griffith to the United States Courts Administration to be the gag order judge for former President Donald J. Trump, whose current gag orders are not working - so he needs one that locks things down tighter than a tick.

So he can get a fair trial(s). So the verdicts cannot be impeachable. So Truth Social can have the content moderation that every OTHER social media must have in order to stay in business, away from oversight by Congress (at his organization’s civil trial, Trump gets to be on his phone during court, what’s up with that?). 

It’s just the fair thing to do on the former president’s behalf.

Vic MacDonald is Editor of The Clinton Chronicle. In June, 2025, he will observe his 50th year in community journalism. Reach him at 864-833-1900.

Oops, They Did it Again….

Published October 2023

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications

Just over five weeks after all five justices of the South Carolina Supreme Court issued resounding statements on the importance of open court proceedings—even if they differed on the consequences of a circuit court judge’s failure to follow openness requirements—another state circuit judge held a secret hearing at which the defendant pleaded guilty to the murder of two Florence police officers and the attempted murder of five others in 2018.

Despite the notoriety and public interest in the case, there was no public notice of the hearing: the docket for the case against Frederick Hopkins, Jr. is sealed, and other proceedings in the case have also been held in courtrooms closed to the public. Circuit Court Judge Eugene Griffith Jr., who is presiding over the case, also issued an order barring those involved in the case from discussing it outside the courtroom.

The unannounced plea hearing was held in Aiken County rather than in Florence County, where the crime occurred. While the public and press were excluded, family members of the victims were notified and present at the hearing.


Just a few weeks earlier, the South Carolina Supreme Court released its opinion explaining its earlier brief order vacating the early release of convicted murderer Jeroid John Price; a process that was entirely sealed. Press reports about the release led the Supreme Court to order on April 20 that all records relating to the case be unsealed and on April 26 to issue its order revoking the release. In the Sept. 6 decision explaining the April 26 order, the three-judge majority held that the sentence reduction was improper because the process was done in secret, and the judge had not sought any alternatives to closure, as required by U.S. Supreme Court and South Carolina Supreme Court precedent.

While the dissenting opinion by Justice George C. James, Jr. argued that the early release should not be vacated, it agreed with the majority on the open courts issue. “There is certainly unanimity in this Court that any court should exercise great care and discretion before closing proceedings or sealing any portion of a court record,” James wrote.

In its landmark ruling Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “we are bound to conclude that a presumption of openness inheres in the very nature of a criminal trial under our system of justice,” and that such openness was required in both federal and state criminal cases by the First Amendment. Closure must be justified by specific findings of harms that would be caused by an open proceeding, and the closure must be only what is absolutely necessary to prevent that harm. “Absent an overriding interest articulated in findings,” the court held, “the trial of a criminal case must be open to the public.”

In South Carolina, where both the state constitution and a specific statute require open courts, the state supreme court has held that “(e)xclusion of the press and public from judicial proceedings is a drastic measure calling for a careful weighing of interests affected.” Thus the court has adopted the closure requirements outlined by the U.S. Supreme Court, and even includes them in a rule for civil cases.

It is unclear whether Judge Griffith undertook this analysis in sealing the entire case against Hopkins. The closures were previously justified by the need to keep jurors from being exposed to evidence that might not be admissible. But this reasoning does not explain the need for closure of the entire docket, and of the hearing at which Hopkins pleaded guilty.

Unfortunately, it seems that the message the South Carolina Supreme Court sent in its strong support for open courts in its ruling in the Price case needs more reinforcement at the local level.

Eric P. Robinson focuses on media and internet law as associate professor at the USC School of Journalism and Mass Communication and in an “of counsel” position at Fenno Law in Charleston / Mount Pleasant. He has worked in media law for more than 25 years and is admitted to legal practice in New York and New Jersey and before the U.S. Supreme Court. This column is for educational purposes only; it does not constitute legal advice. Any opinions are his own, not necessarily those of his employers.


The Governor’s action as a result of earlier case (Oct. 19):

Governor Henry McMaster Directs Solicitors to Seek Attorney General’s Approval Before Reducing Criminal Sentences

Transparency and Accountability Key to Restoring Public Confidence in Criminal Justice System

COLUMBIA –  In an effort to restore the public’s confidence in our state’s criminal justice system through increased transparency and accountability, Governor Henry McMaster today wrote a letter to South Carolina's State Circuit Solicitors directing them to provide at least ten days' notice to the attorney general before filing any future motions to reduce a criminal sentence. Additionally, the governor is requesting Attorney General Alan Wilson review any such early release motions to ensure compliance with state law.

The governor's directive follows the early release of convicted murderer Jeroid Price and the identification of 26 other similar, or potentially similar, early release cases by the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC). 

"While I will continue to advocate for tougher criminal laws and penalties and urge the General Assembly to take prompt action, unfortunately, recent events have revealed that it is not sufficient simply to arrest, convict, and incarcerate criminals, but we must also ensure that they stay in prison," Governor McMaster wrote in his letter. 

In April, Governor McMaster requested that SCDC Director Bryan Stirling review SCDC's records and attempt to identify any early release scenarios similar, or potentially similar, to Price's case. Director Stirling identified a list of 26 other cases from January 1, 2022, through April 24, 2023, and provided the corresponding court orders to Governor McMaster, Attorney General Wilson, and South Carolina Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel.

"In light of our recent experience with the Jeroid Price matter, it is imperative that the State review any previous (and potentially similar) early release orders to confirm compliance with the applicable law, and I appreciate Attorney General Wilson’s ongoing assistance in doing so. However, after-the-fact awareness of these incidents alone is not sufficient," Governor McMaster continued.

Price was released from prison on March 15 after serving 19 years of his 35-year sentence for the 2002 murder of Carl Smalls Jr. The S.C. Supreme Court vacated the order reducing Price's sentence on April 26, and law enforcement captured Price on July 17. 


The "order" re-instated here.